The fall of the Inside Linebacker: How the Once Heart of the Team is now a Secondary Position
Bill Parcells, a successful coach, and mentor to the living legend Bill Belichick has a famous philosophy about the draft where he separates “premium positions” from secondary positions. The cornerstone positions are the quarterback, tackle, edge-rusher, and cornerback. (Sun Seninel, 2010) It’s no mistake that these are also the key players in the passing game.
Teams put the highest premium on the quarterback position. Look at the salaries of current franchise quarterbacks and even in some cases backup quarterbacks. It far outweighs the value of any other position. Just look at the way the LA Rams and the Philadelphia Eagles traded for the chance at a franchise quarterback. But then there is the antithesis, the edge rusher. In a 4-3 defense this is the defensive end and in a 3-4 front, it is the outside linebacker. Their premium is based on their ability to get after the quarterback. But then there is the tackle. After all, who largely responsible for the defense’s edge rusher? And the fourth premium position, that’s the cornerback, who is to cover the quarterback’s passing options.
Many statisticians refer to the TOX stat. This is calculated through turnovers and explosive plays. Who could blame offenses for wanting to focus on the passing game? It is the more likely option at an explosive play. I should also mention the importance of turnovers. A good quarterback doesn’t throw many turnovers, and an edge rusher will create pressure to force turnovers. Of course who on the defense catches the most interceptions? It is likely the team’s cornerbacks.
Through all this focus on the passing game, there are a few favorites that are being buried in the past. It has been talked about for almost fifteen years now the fall of the fullback and we know that the running back is drafted later on average than in the past. Names like Barry Sanders and Emmit Smith. Their career records may never be broken. It is happening on the defensive side of the ball too. Teams are no longer putting a premium in 3-4 defenses on the nose tackle.
This leaves us with the title of this article. The next domino to fall is the middle linebacker. After all, their job is to stop the run primarily and they are starting to be substituted for defensive backs on obvious passing downs. Looking at mock drafts, the only inside linebacker regularly mocked in the first round is Rueben Foster. Last year, a true middle linebacker was not even drafted in the first round. Now some may argue that has to do with the switch to the 3-4 by many teams. But I would consider the weak side inside linebackers like Ryan Shazier and Darron Lee to be more outside linebackers of the 4-3.
So what is happening to the Brian Urlachers and Jack Lamberts of yesterday? These guys were believed to be the “Heart and Soul” of a team. Now they are a dying breed in the NFL. Can they be saved? That is what makes the career of Ezekiel Elliot so exciting! This guy was drafted in the top 4 last year and was voted to the pro bowl as a rookie. This is a great story for the NFL. Can this guy change the nature of the game again? Can a potent running game be the focus of the offense? That’s why I am watching the Cowboys next year. Can the running game be the focus again? Can we have a gritty middle linebacker be the MVP? Tuning in.
2016 NFL Draft Profile: Darron Lee. Retrieved from http://www.nfl.com/draft/2016/profiles/darron-lee?id=2555322
Parcells’ past draft history targets premium positions. (2010, April 11). Retrieved from http://articles.sun-sentinel.com/2010-04-11/sports/fl-skolnick-nfl-draft-dolphins-0411-20100409_1_nfl-executive-premium-pat-kirwin